Scenic loop, historic roads and caves
Published/Last edited or updated: 15th February, 2016
Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a culmination of many wondrous things: 400 million-year-old topography, peaks formed by tectonic uplift, great valleys carved by rivers and nature left alone to thrive. And don’t forget about what’s underneath: eye-popping caves including the first and third largest caves in the world. This 65-kilometre loop through the park covers the top sites accessible to independent visitors, including Paradise Cave and Dark Cave. You’ll ride on parts of the historic Ho Chi Minh Trail (now highway), one of the most dramatic drives we have experienced in Vietnam. Get your cameras ready, watch for wildlife and prepare to be amazed.
This is a fantastic motorbike ride, whether you’re an experienced driver on your own bike or riding on the back of one with a hired driver, like Thang’s Phong Nha Riders. You need three litres of fuel to do to the whole loop and you can go in either direction. Traffic is very light but do drive slowly. Sand, water, rocks and big vehicles can make it hazardous.
Clockwise route: Follow the road into Phong Nha town, heading the same direction as upriver for three kilometres. Turn left for Highway 20, which leads directly into the park. You’ll eventually come to the park gates. Independent travellers are allowed into the park (no guide is required). It is also free; you pay for each attraction separately.
The first stop is the Botanic Garden for an unguided hike through the park – it’s a great way to experience the park’s natural beauty on your own. Two well-marked trails lead through the tropical forest and one of the highlights is the picture-perfect Thac Gio Waterfall. Choose between a 1.5 or 2.5 kilometre loop, which will take one to two hours. Or if you just want to see the waterfall, you can simply walk there and back in a 20-minute roundtrip.
From the Botanic Garden, continue on to the you-can’t-miss-it intersection with Ho Chi Minh Highway West. At the intersection continue straight for another 2.5 kilometres to see the Eight Ladies Cave and temple/memorial to war martyrs.
Highway 20 is also known as “Victory Road” and was part of the Ho Chi Minh trail system, the supply lines to aid the North fighters located south of the DMZ. Constructed in 1966, this important road connected Ho Chi Minh Trail East with Ho Chi Minh Trail West. As such, this road saw heavy bombing. In front of the Eight Ladies Cave, you can see the metal bomb shell casing ironically used as a bombing raid alarm to alert people to take cover. At this cave, bombs on November 14, 1972 collapsed the entrance trapping eight inside. Rescue efforts failed and all perished. Eight Ladies Cave is a place of worship and people regularly visit to pay their respects; appropriate attire is required. Women must have their shoulders and knees covered, men should wear shirts. Your visit should be a sombre one.
Head back to the intersection and turn left onto Ho Chi Minh Highway West, travelling 5.5 kilometres to reach the gate to Paradise Cave, the longest dry cave in Asia. Discovered in 2005 and opened to the public in 2010, Thien Duong or Paradise Cave is 31 kilometres in length, though the general public is only allowed to see the one kilometre along a boardwalk. That first kilometre, however, is spectacular. It is often considered the prettiest cave of the park because of its abundance of beautiful formations. Allow for two hours from start to finish.
Back on Ho Chi Minh Highway West, head north and in a couple of kilometres you’ll reach Nuoc Mooc Springs Eco Trail, a natural spring which has been built up with tourist infrastructure such as walkways, bridges and sectioned off swimming areas. We didn’t check it out but we were told by a Phong Nha resident that the water is cold, clear and bright blue. If you want to stop for a swim, it’s 80,000 dong per person, open daily 07:00-17:00. Otherwise, head straight to Dark Cave.
Hang Toi, more commonly known as the Dark Cave, is a six-kilometre cave that is not artificially lit. This experience is for thrill seekers, not for those who get claustrophobic. After arriving to the entrance via Vietnam’s longest zip-line, with the help of torches you’ll venture into a narrow crevasse that opens into a pit of thick, gloppy, gooey and buoyant mud. Prepare to get dirty and have fun. After the mud bath, clean off with a swim in the dark in the underground river before kayaking back. You need about 1.5 hours for the Dark Cave, but many find themselves lingering at their river playground, which includes an over-water obstacle course and flying fox.
To complete the clockwise loop, it’s another 11 kilometres north to meet Ho Chi Minh Highway East, then turn left for 10 kilometres to reach town.
Cindy Fan is a Canadian writer/photographer and author of So Many Miles, a website that chronicles the love of adventure, food and culture. After falling in love with sticky rice and Mekong sunsets, in 2011 she uprooted her life in Toronto to live la vida Laos. She’s travelled to over 40 countries and harbours a deep affection for Africa and Southeast Asia. In between jaunts around the world, she calls Laos and Vietnam home where you’ll find her traipsing through rice paddies, standing beside broken-down buses and in villages laughing with the locals.
These tours are provided by Travelfish partner GetYourGuide.
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